Act Two for Tot Hill Farm

Act Two for Tot Hill Farm

By Lee Pace

If Mike Strantz hadn’t died from tongue cancer in 2005 at the young age of 50, would he ever have made it to Pinehurst proper to design a golf course?

We’ll never know, of course, but at least 25 percent of his remarkable but all too limited design portfolio was built within 45 miles of the Village of Pinehurst.

Twenty-five miles to the northeast is Tobacco Road in Sanford, which opened in 1998 with craggy edges, blind shots and dramatic ups and downs whittled from the site of an old sand quarry.

And 45 miles to the northwest is Tot Hill Farm, which opened in 2000 on a rocky site in the Uwharrie Mountains near Asheboro with an ever-present creek running through the course and an 1800s farmhouse converted into a clubhouse and golf shop. The course in the last year has undergone an ownership change and reopened in September following a significant operations and agronomic overhaul.

Tobacco Road and Tot Hill provide the golf package community of the Sandhills two options for Strantz courses to add to offerings of Donald Ross, the Maples family, Tom Fazio, Rees Jones, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gil Hanse, among others. Tobacco Road and Tot Hill are ideal options for golfers traveling from points west, north and east — they are challenging and entertaining venues to launch a Sandhills golf excursion or catch on the way out of town.

“I have always been fascinated with Mike Strantz’s work and how he went about designing a course — he actually set up shop and lived on-site for every job he did,” says Pat Barber, who owns two courses in the Charleston area and bought Tot Hill in December 2022. “I’ve always enjoyed a good renovation, whether it’s an old house on the battery in Charleston or a golf course that has some potential. This is a special piece of property, has a unique story and is just one of a few very courses that Mike produced. All those things made it an appealing opportunity. We fell in love with the golf course, the land and the old farmhouse. The idea of bringing it back to life was exciting.”

Tot Hill was built on part of a 400-acre parcel that had been in the family of Asheboro native Ogburn Yates since 1943, and the family lived there during the summers and Yates later raised cattle. In the 1990s, Yates said the family was faced with three options. One was to sell it, but “there were too many memories,” he says. Another was to let it sit idle. A third was to jump on the health of golf and residential markets and build a golf course and develop a neighborhood.

Yates owned a condominium at Pawleys Island on the South Carolina coast and through a church there made friends with Doc Lachicotte, a prominent area businessman who was a partner in the mid-1980s creation of the Wachesaw Plantation golf community in Murrells Inlet and the subsequent idea to build a daily-fee course on land along the Intracoastal Waterway used as a fishing club. Lachicotte hired Strantz to design what would become the highly decorated Caledonia Golf & Fish Club.

“I told Doc we were thinking of doing a golf course on an old family farm, and he said I should talk to Mike,” Yates says. “Doc said he’d bring Mike up here one weekend and let him look at the property. They got here and Mike said, ‘Let me walk around an hour or so.’ He came back and said, ‘You need to build a golf course here. This is a great piece of land.’”

Strantz lived in the farmhouse for 18 months while drawing sketches of the holes during the evenings and wandering the property by horseback and jumping on earth-moving machines during the day. The course opened in May 2000 and golfers from the beginning were wowed by the tee area of the par-3 third hole cobbled amidst enormous rock outcroppings; the teardrop shaped green of the fifth hole set in another rocky and sandy setting; the “cave” built under the ground connecting the 10th and 12th greens; and the waterfall cascading down from behind the 15th green.

“The piece of property is tremendous,” Strantz said. “I was brought in pretty much as a consultant at the beginning by Ogburn. We walked out on the property and looked at a few places. It kept getting better and better. I got across the road and I kept hearing this sound. I had to go see what it was. It was a waterfall and some big rock. I said, ‘Ogburn, you gotta do it.’ There was no question in my mind at that point.”

Tot Hill has survived two recessions, the occasional flood like the one in 2003 where Betty McGee’s Creek washed out one green entirely and parts of two others and the always evolving golf economy. By 2018, Yates and his partners were getting along in age and thought it time to find a buyer who would continue the Tot Hill vision. They met with a half dozen potential buyers before reaching a comfort level with Barber, who has been in the golf business for more than 20 years with Stono Ferry Golf Club and the Plantation Course at Edisto, both in the Charleston area.

The course closed in May 2023 and reopened on Labor Day. All of the greens and bunkers were rebuilt, some drainage issues addressed, many of the cart paths resurfaced and vast swaths of trees culled out to improve sunlight and airflow. The motor operating the waterfall on No. 15 was replaced and the farmhouse restored for golf operations, a snack bar and a room dedicated to Strantz memorabilia.

“With the exception of one lake on the 12th hole, you can always find your ball and go play it,” Strantz said. “You may not like where it’s at, but at least you can find it and get to it.”

“‘Sensory overload’ is a phrase you hear often where Strantz courses are concerned,” says Greg Wood, the club director of operations. “Mike was at the height of his career when he was here, just coming off the accolades for Tobacco Road and before he did Bulls Bay.”

Wood points to some of the drawings from Strantz’s pen that are hanging on the clubhouse walls and marvels at how closely the finished construction matched the illustrations. Also displayed are several sketches of potential logos for the club that Strantz drew, the eventual one featuring a horseshoe surrounding an animal skull and horns. When the new owners took over, they modified the logo in a rebranding effort using another Strantz option.

“The exciting part is that Strantz the artist gave us several options to use,” Wood says.

Mike Strantz the artist and Mike Strantz the golf architect — they are one in the same and on full display in today’s Sandhills golf landscape.

Read more about Mike Strantz, An Artist in the Dirt.

Chapel Hill-based writer Lee Pace has been writing about golf in North Carolina and the Sandhills for four decades. His latest book is “Good Walks—Rediscovering the Soul of Golf at Eighteen Top Carolinas Courses,” available from UNC Press.

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